Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Opinion | The other side of India, that is its ocean of human spirit

Those who try to discover this land may not effect change, but they themselves certainly change

In the past five years, I have spent about 100 days each year in the field. These are places where we work, across districts in Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Karnataka and Puducherry. I have been visiting these places for eight years, but it is in the last five that there has been a regular rhythm.

The rhythm covers 47 districts at least once a year. Our team members are in over 175 small towns. I try to but am not able to go to all these towns every year. Infrequently, I do travel to other parts of India and, more regularly, to Delhi and the US, all of which is in addition to my travel to the field.

Everywhere in the field, I do the same things. Spending time with our team, visiting public (government) schools, talking to children, meeting teachers individually and in groups, observing some workshops, chatting with people from communities where the schools are located, meeting people from other social sector organizations, once in a while meeting government officials, and also picking up threads of conversations with drivers, dhabawalas and waiters, where we left off the previous year. All this is not only in the district headquarter, which is usually the largest town around, but in villages and small towns spread across that district.

In many of these places, the dogs and I are familiar with each other. Wherever I am, I run in the mornings on the roads or paths. Every such running route has dogs. The aggressive and spiteful ones, I have identified. But, as I have learnt, most are just nice and friendly.

These repeated visits develop bonds with the places, not just the dogs, nurturing acquaintances into relationships and regularly opening windows into life, which can happen only by chance for a one-time visitor. Clearly, this is one of the great privileges of my role, to be able to experience India with this intimacy.

A teacher brings daal-chaawal-subzi from home for me at her school, in the searing heat of Mudgal. She had met me a year before and remembers that I can’t eat spicy food. Up high in the mountains in Kumaon, plain daal-roti is ready for me in another school, along with the midday meal for children. They also remember. Lakshmi’s children have grown in these years, while her small dhaba between Barkot and Uttarkashi at Giloti bend acts like a home kitchen for me. And my colleagues, they will never forget.

I couldn’t function in this country of spice without the care that I get, often at the cost of much inconvenience to those who bestow this care on me. Most of them have no reason to care, other than that they just care without reason. The human substrate is deep in this country of spice.

How do you make a living when drought has started in January? How many days of wages can you skip to take your mother to the hospital which is 100km away? What do you do with guards who won’t let you enter the forest to get firewood, court orders be damned? Questions like these seem unanswerable to me. But people live through these and more every day, and on very little, in all these places.

Never will I ever forget what a teacher from Dei, Uttarakhand, told me, “Yahan to sab kuch chalne lagta hai (we make everything work here)." She was talking about stubs of chalk. Too small to hold, but she uses them till they crumble between her thumb and finger. Everything has value here, never to be thrown away. Used in ways that are hard to imagine, till they can’t. Because everything is scarce. Though that is not a complaint heard, let alone a refrain. It is just another dimension to life. Every time I am back in this other India of mine, I spend each rupee even more carefully.

These are different worlds, that of my 100 days, and the rest—not separated worlds, but like the shores and the depths of the ocean. The depths of the ocean is most of India. Those who are on the shores know not of the depths, unless they make an effort. Many have come from those very depths, but have now cut themselves off, and exorcised their memories.

Most economic and political power resides in these shores, which I encounter frequently in the other 200 days. Too few of these purveyors of power—academics, administrators, policymakers, business people, journalists, professionals and more, make the effort to experience this vast and real India. But they offer opinions and, worse, take decisions that affect those whose lives they have no clue of. Politicians make more effort, since their trade depends on it.

We are strangers in our own land. Those who take the effort to discover this land may or may not help change things, but they themselves certainly change. How can they not, engulfed by people who are unrelenting in the face of all odds, yet caring without reason? Every visit to this India changes me. Usually bit by bit, sometimes dramatically. Every such day, I am more grateful for the limitless privileges of my life, and, more aware of the limits of my abilities. And each such day, the limitless power of the human spirit pours energy and hope.

You may not have to travel 100 days like me, it may just be across the street in Bengaluru or Delhi. Try leaving the shores for the depths of this ocean of human spirit.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.